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DECEMBER 13, 1999: 


It's a tour de force that's generating Oscar buzz: British stage actress Janet McTeer oozing more Southern-fried sizzle than a hush puppy in director Gavin O'Connor's take on Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. With a flawless drawl and rangy sensuality, the Tony winner is magnetic as Mary Lou, a single mom whose taste in men leans toward hot-tempered losers in tanktops. After yet another relationship ends in a climax of shattered dishware, she and her prescient daughter (the promising Kimberly Brown) peel off into the night, settling finally in sunny San Diego. There life begins to brighten for the two -- until Mary Lou sidles up to her next beer-swilling beau (the versatile O'Connor).

The mother-daughter bond is the real love affair here: McTeer and Brown limn a heartfelt, offbeat alliance that defies the fickleness of mere romance. But Mary Lou's compulsion to hit the interstate every time a marriage sours is melodramatic, and, like most habits, predictable. The result is a plot too slight to contain a relationship this substantial.

-- Alicia Potter

The Green Mile

Talk about writing your own epitaph. " . . . sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long," concludes the voiceover narrator of Frank Darabont's adaptation of the Stephen King serial novel. After watching more than three hours of The Green Mile, you may well feel that truer words were never spoken, or more welcome. Not that Darabont is known for his concision -- his overrated Shawshank Redemption, an adaptation of a much shorter King novella, pushes two and a half hours. Perhaps it's the imitative fallacy -- both films are about men in prison, doing time as they face a life or, in this case, a death sentence. Although excusable in the Dickensian serial-novel format of the original, Darabont's repetitions, broad comedy, bloated stereotypes, and languorous padding represent cruel and unusual punishment.

Not that the film is without redemption -- that, after all, is its theme. In search of forgiveness is old Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer), who breaks down while watching Top Hat on TV in a rest home. We flash back to a Louisiana prison during the Depression, where young Paul (a perfunctory Tom Hanks) is the head screw on death row, the so-called Green Mile. A nice guy except for his occupation of putting people to death, Paul begins to have doubts when John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan, doing wonders with a cliché), a simple-minded, seven-foot-tall black giant convicted of killing two little girls, moves onto the Mile. In one of several bizarrely homoerotic moments, John grabs Paul's crotch through the bars, lights flash and burn out, and Paul discovers that his urinary-tract infection has been cured.

Not only does John seem innocent, he can perform miracles. Which leaves Paul and the movie with a moral dilemma -- not so much how to deal with John's death sentence, but what to do about the whole problem of good, evil, and human suffering. And to its credit, The Green Mile gives a fair account of itself, validating not only John's lament that love is the ultimate tool of hate but the idea that hate, when properly manipulated, can serve the cause of love. If by nothing else, the film is redeemed by a scene in which John, halo'd by a movie-projector light, glimpses Heaven as Fred and Ginger dance cheek to cheek. Overlong and potholed, The Green Mile is still worth the journey.

-- Peter Keough

Liberty Heights

Whatever happened to the director of Diner and Tin Men? Barry Levinson must have been asking himself that question, since he's returned for the fourth time (the woeful Avalon was the third) to the Baltimore of his youth and of his two best movies. Unfortunately, Liberty Heights owes less to the neighborhood of the title than to the kneejerk politics of subpar Spike Lee and to the mannerisms of Mamet-speak that Levinson no doubt picked up from the screenwriter of his surprise hit Wag the Dog.

Set in the '50s, Heights loosely follows the skewed adventures of the Kurtzman family, whose patriarch, Nate (Joe Mantegna), makes a dicy living from his burlesque house and numbers racket. Nonconformist son Ben (Ben Foster) acts out by dressing up as Hitler on Halloween; his brother Van (Adrien Brody) crashes parties in the white-shoe, WASPy part of town. Ben falls for Sylvia (a decorous but sly Rebekah Johnson), the first black student in their newly integrated school; Van falls for Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy in the Cybill Shepherd role), a bored, rich shiksa. Romance, though, is only an excuse for a lesson in tolerance and ethnic pride. And these characters don't just wear that pride on their sleeves, they scrawl it on their bare chests -- three of them have the word "JEW" painted across their torsos in a scene where they liberate a segregated local pool. Such liberal platitudes and a relentless soundtrack of period pop tunes are all that hold together Levinson's exercise in self-conscious nostalgia.

-- Peter Keough

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